Given that children now spend more than seven hours a day with their TV's, computers, cellphones, and other electronic media—more time than they spend in school and more than many of them sleep—we parents have got to get smart about our children's media use and how it affects their physical and mental health, and we need to develop a family strategy for managing media. Good luck figuring that out from the research, which is confusing and incomplete. For instance, the health effects of cellphones have been barely studied, despite the fact that most teens seem to text more than they breathe. But there's some help in a new article in Pediatrics, which evaluates the state of the science and lays out the good and bad.
"Most parents are clueless," says Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico, who led the study. "They have no idea about media effects. They probably have no idea what their children are watching. Parents need to understand that media can have an impact on everything they're concerned about with their children's health and development: school performance, learning disabilities, sex, drugs, aggressive behavior."
[Consider: Do kids learn better online?]
Sad to say, but I think Strasburger is right. We parents work hard to protect our children from harm, but we often think nothing of taking grade schoolers to an R-rated movie or letting middle schoolers play violent video games like Halo for hours on end. We're trying to cut the junk food out of their diets while letting them gorge on junk media.
Wondering where to start in getting control of your children's media diet? Here are three aspects of electronic media that have the worst impact on children's health, based on my conversation with Strasburger and the available research:
1. TVs and computers in kids' bedrooms. Two thirds of children have a TV in their bedroom, which doubles his or her risk of smoking and increases the risk of becoming overweight by one third. Kids with bedroom TVs also get less sleep and spend less time reading and doing hobbies. Strasburger says: "Get the TV or Internet connection out of your child's bedroom, because you have no control."
2. TV watching by small children. TV does nothing to help the intellectual or social development of children under age 2, despite the heavy marketing of "educational" programs for them. Moreover, a half-dozen studies have correlated TV in the early years with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) later in childhood. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children watch no TV before age 2. Still, 70 percent of babies do.
3. Violent media and children of all ages. Hundreds of studies have found that on-screen violence makes children more aggressive, anxious, and fearful, more likely to see violence as a justified means of problem-solving, and desensitized to the consequences of violence. This is particularly true for children under age 8, but violent videos and music aren't doing teenagers any good, either. Exposure to drinking, smoking, and sex on the screen can make risky behaviors seem normal and have been correlated with riskier behaviors. Here's a chance for us parents to get aggressive in a good way and put our feet down about violence and risky behavior on screen.
Perhaps not surprisingly, electronic media's influence on children isn't all bad. There are extraordinary things to see and share, and parents who make wise media choices for their family are also teaching their children to be savvy media consumers. Here are three ways your family can gain when the media diet is healthful:
1. Through meaningful storytelling. Quality media can help teach essential human values through storytelling, a powerful learning tool. A great movie or TV show (think Up or Sesame Street) can provide your children lasting lessons on growing up to be good, kind, and wise. Check out sites like KidsFirst and Common Sense Media for reviews of movies and video games.
2. By gaining advertisement literacy. Children younger than age 8 have difficulty understanding that advertisements are designed to persuade them, but older children can become savvy consumers by learning how media are used to manipulate thoughts and emotions. The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia require that children be taught "media literacy," and research has shown that it may help mitigate the harmful effects of media.
3. To inspire talks about difficult issues. Watching TV or playing computer games with your children not only helps you understand their interests but provides a great opportunity for teaching your own values. Strasburger says he watches Lost and other TV shows with his 17-year-old daughter. "A character on TV is having sex with his girlfriend. It's easy to say, 'What do you think about that?' rather than say, 'Are you having sex?' It's a really powerful way of communicating with your teenagers," he says.
So the good news for parents is that we do have choices: There are healthful ways for children to use media, and we can exert control over what they watch and for how long. We're in the midst of a massive experiment, and it's up to us to create a sensible balance between media and the other essentials of life.
[Related: Four reasons more recess actually helps kids do better in school.]